I’ve been going to "ColorComm" conferences for as long as I can remember. Mind you, the ColorComm Conference: C2 Miami is only in its fourth year, but since I was a pre-teen, I’ve been watching women – mostly women of color – talk about how to advance to senior-level positions in their respective fields. Whether it was my mother strategizing about how to take the reins of an organization that she brought into the age of automation (think the Hidden Figures of healthcare) or her friends who, frustrated, abandoned their career trajectories and were solely, singularly, laser-focused on their daughter’s futures, my life has been a series of "ColorComm" conferences.
Early in my career, I attended a "ColorComm" conference when I realized I was the only non-administrative woman of color at my agency. I obviously had no one in my office to empathize with, but I knew there were industry colleagues who were facing the same struggles and navigating the same discouraging waters. So I gathered with them. I initiated a "ColorComm" conference when I was challenged by leadership to create a pipeline for diverse candidates. Colleagues and I launched an agency scholarship fund with a local HBCU. Later, I ran a "ColorComm" in the mid-1990s as deputy director of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, overseeing a report that provided recommendations to increase the number of women and people of color in the C-suite. You get the drift; I’ve basically been attending these conferences my entire life.
This year, when I went to ColorComm Conference: C2 Miami, I went prepared and with specific intent. For the past year, I had been working with men and women across the industry, leading a taskforce to empower diverse candidates to elevate their voices and emerge as leaders, an effort that was sparked by a session I led at the ColorComm Conference: C2 Miami last summer. Together, 15 agencies convened monthly, commiserating and strategizing, but also inciting change. We brought together and heard from experts. We formed and fielded quantitative research. We held listening sessions with women, mostly women of color, in the communications industry in eight U.S. markets. But at this year’s ColorComm Conference: C2 Miami, it was time for the listening session we all needed -- a listening session with the C-suite.
We brought four global leaders and asked them to listen. And that’s what they did.
APCO Worldwide CEO Brad Staples, Porter Novelli CEO Brad McAfee, FleishmanHillard CEO John Saunders, and Edelman COO Matt Harrington joined me, Porter Novelli EVP and global diversity and inclusion leader Soon Mee Kim, Edelman EVP and MD of diversity and inclusion Trisch Smith, FleishmanHillard SVP and senior partner of talent development Mildred Galvin, and a room of powerful, strong communications professionals to talk about the barriers we face as women of color.
Remember, I’ve been doing this my entire life. I went, led the discussion, brought the right people together, and prepared to move on to my next ColorComm. But, Brad – my Brad – didn’t.
In a room full of women who I’d been talking to and walking in the shoes of my entire life, Brad, Brad, Matt, and John were profoundly affected.
After our session, Brad called the APCO delegation together with an intense sense of urgency to continue to probe the barriers and solutions presented in the listening session. He communicated his deep gratitude for the honesty and authenticity of our team as we shared our unfiltered thoughts. I have received notes from each global leader expressing gratitude for an opportunity they are not frequently afforded: an opportunity to just listen.
After returning from the ColorComm Conference: C2 Miami, I heard my Brad talk about his experience every chance he had. Last week at our global leadership team meeting, as we discussed staffing, I sparked the discussion about diversity, but this time, when I started the sentence, Brad finished it.
He went to ColorComm, he listened, and he heard. So did the others.
Seeing this experience through the eyes of Brad, Brad, Matt, and John, I began to see how powerful the moment we created truly was. One comment to our C-suite leaders from a high-level woman at a major agency struck me deeply. She simply said, "Thank you for being here, for listening to me… to us."
Our global leaders were unabashedly engaged, leaning forward, asking questions, taking in advice, and writing down notes. They issued a challenge to be invited back next year and to hold them each accountable for the actions they took after this session.
We as women – women of color, people of color, LGBTQ, first-generation immigrants – are used to being the only one in the room. I would venture to say that professionally, Brad, Brad, Matt, and John have never been the only one in the room. I think about the safe, familiar bubbles that we keep ourselves in. How often do we force ourselves out of our comfort zones? How often do we put our leaders in situations like the ColorComm Conference not to tout the work we’re doing, but to listen and hear about the work that needs to be done?
We have to keep attending, supporting, and creating these ColorComm conferences. More importantly, we need to bring people with us who will be given the opportunity of a lifetime to open their eyes, ears, and hearts. We can keep having these conversations, but what matters is who is in the room.
Back to my mother. She did this in her own career. She rose to the highest levels of leadership, taught me to follow in her footsteps, and gave me the courage to leave even bigger footprints for my own daughter.
Lisa Osborne Ross is MD of APCO Worldwide’s global headquarters office in Washington, DC, and a member of ColorComm's advisory board. She is a veteran of Ogilvy and worked in the Clinton administration.